Thursday, July 26, 2007

KNOW Founders Reduce Their Time and Presence

On Sunday, September 1, 2002, Tom Small asked his wife, Nancy, what she wanted to do for her birthday. "I'd like to stand in front of the Federal Building with a sign saying 'No war in Iraq,'" she said.

Tom thought that to be a good idea so he called his friend, Patrick Jones, and the three of them arranged to meet at noon in front of the Federal Building on downtown Kalamazoo's main street to hold signs protesting a war against Iraq. The three continued their demonstrations each week and gradually other people found out about their "Sunday peace vigil." The group grew to 10, 15, and 20 and consisted of many people who had stood for peace many years ago during the Vietnam War. Later that fall, as many as 200 to 250 people joined the group that included students and professors from Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University, Quakers, pacifists, members of the clergy and laity, Muslims, Veterans for Peace, local activists and senior citizens. On the first night after the war began, KNOW held a silent night time peace vigil and 700 people showed up.

How amazing what a small group of people can do! The Sunday vigils have met every week without fail since Tom and Nancy started them five years ago. For the first four of those years Tom also conducted the small group meeting after the vigil. This meant that he not only collected announcements, but prepared inspirational messages, some of his own and some from published sources. They both attended bi-weekly KNOW planning meetings and continued to work as a team to promote KNOW, peace, and the Sunday vigils.

This week Tom and Nancy announced that they would discontinue editing the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War (KNOW) newsletter. They have been sending it every week by e-mail over these past five years. But activists that they are, they will concentrate themselves to the great work they were doing before this awful war began: environmental education and service. To quote Tom's message:
As part of our campaign against violence to nature, the two of us are starting work on a new web site centering on climate change. We’ll begin redoing the old Earth Day web site and then move to a new web address. Ed Shankman has agreed to be our web master, and Nancy and I will work together on content. In addition to the environmental newsletter we do for our local chapter of Wild Ones, we’ll also do a newsletter focused on climate change. A new web site and two environmental newsletters are more than enough to keep us busy."
Peace be with you, Tom and Nancy, and thank you for all you have done for KNOW and for peace!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Archbishop Elias Chacour Works for Peace in the Middle East

He neither asks for money nor passes out donation envelopes after his speeches. He neither wants pity for his situation nor accolades for his work. He speaks to anyone who will listen and his mission is to encourage others “get their hands dirty for peace.”

“I am a Palestinian, a proud Palestinian, a Palestinian Arab,” said Archbishop Elias Chacour. “My mother language is Arabic. I am also a Christian. I am a Palestinian Arab Christian—and a citizen of Israel. This adds confusion to those who think that Palestinians are Muslims and that they are bloodthirsty people born to violence.” He opens his coat and exposes his clean, grayish-white shirt. “See, I have no bombs.”

“Slow down your prejudices and your preconceived ideas,” he said. “Even though my identity looks like a lot of contradictions, take it on as a new challenge. I am here to prove to all that there IS a way to create unity with a respect for diversity that can co-exist in the Holy Land.”

Archbishop Chacour is a stout, animated man. His short, dark, spiked hair and long, white chin beard frame his wide smile and flashing bright eyes. He can listen quietly or switch to speaking vociferously about Palestine in a split second, whatever the occasion requires. Except for his black suit and clerical collar, he might otherwise be lost in a crowd. As I observed him in a crowd of 500 during the annual Peace Week held at Western Michigan University, it soon became obvious how this “homeless Palestinian” was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize (1986, 1989, 1994) and awarded the World Methodist Peace Prize (1994) and the Japanese Niwano Peace Prize (2001). In March he was named Archbishop of Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church in the Holy Land.

As a newly-ordained priest with the St. George Melkite Catholic Church in 1965, Elias Chacour was sent to Ibillin, a small Arab village in Galilee where Christians and Muslims have lived together peacefully for many generations. He was only supposed to stay in Ibillin a month but “bishops have short memories and mine forgot that he put me there,” he said.

As his first task he chose to repair the mosque in town. Now, 42 years later, his work has evolved into planting untold orchards of peace and justice by educating the children of the Galilee region where 50 percent of the Arab population is under 14 years old and 75 percent is below 28 years old. “My life’s meaning has been to give hope to my people,” said the Archbishop whose flock affectionately calls “Abuna.”

The Archbishop’s ministry in the education field began when he collected and distributed old books. He found that books helped the children “leave” their poor environment a little while. Eventually this project led him to build the town’s first public library. He further sought to make the children’s lives a little better by sponsoring summer camps. In the first year 5,000 children registered from 30 villages all over Galilee. The Archbishop finds that he can never reject anyone even though he isn’t always sure how he can accommodate everyone.

“When I pray and abandon myself to God’s hands, I give inspiration to others.” He invited 10 mothers from among the campers of 30 villages to help prepare sandwiches and drinks for the children—and ended up with 300 mothers—most of them Muslims.

“It was a beautiful community,” he said. “We Christians don’t have a monopoly of doing good. We don’t have exclusive control of the Holy Spirit.” And then he added: “Even God is not a Christian.”

Archbishop Chacour is a sly, patient man, traits he perhaps developed when he built the area’s new high school. In 1981 he realized that only 18 girls were enrolled in high school, so he decided to erect a building and encourage more girls—as well as boys—to go to school. The Israeli government, however, denied him a building permit, so he decided to build the school anyway.

Three months later the police tried to stop him from continuing his building project and he subsequently went to court. The judge scheduled his hearing for Sunday at 10 a.m. but the Archbishop said that as a Catholic priest he didn’t go to court on Sundays. The judge postponed the case for six months. Then the Archbishop received another letter announcing a new court date for Sunday at 10 a.m. Again he refused to appear and the judge again postponed the hearing for another six months. This went on six more times and the high school was completed—and never touched by the Israeli military. Established in 1982 with 80 students, the high school now has over 1,100 students.

“I invite you,” said Archbishop Chacour in a moral-of-the-story tone, “never condemn anyone to be good or bad. There is evil in every nation and in every human being. There is also good. Choose what to enhance. There is good in every human being and it is stronger than evil.”

Archbishop Chacour’s success in Ibillin has gone way beyond his own expectations but his belief that educating the young gives them hope and skills for the future motivates him. Before the high school was built, Archbishop Chacour founded the The Myriam Bawardi Kindergarten in 1970, which enrolls 220 students. The technical college (founded in 1994) has over 800 students. A regional teacher training center (founded in 1996) that works with teachers of Arab children throughout Galilee enrolls 1,000. An elementary school started in 2001 adds one class per year starting with grades one to four. About 130 students were initially enrolled. The school for gifted children was formed in 1998 with 120 students. All of these schools fall under the Mar Elias Educational Institutions (MEEI) where children and young adults of several faith traditions learn to live and work together in peace.

Archbishop Chacour insists that every child in Galilee is admitted to school and no one is refused because he or she is poor or unacceptable due to his or her religion or ethnicity. He doesn’t even need to recruit students! The MEEI schools currently enroll 4,500 students where 65 percent of them are Muslims and the rest are Christians and Jews. As a result, all students are invited to integrate themselves with their neighbors and no one attempts to assimilate them to any particular religion or creed.

Archbishop Chacour said that living out this mission of openness is not automatic and he relates this point with a story about the time Jewish children started coming to the school. He was glad they were there but he feared trouble might erupt. So on the first day he ordered some buses and took the students to Mount Carmel for a field trip. By lunch time the kids all forgot they were Jews and Palestinians and instead exchanged addresses, e-mails and telephone numbers.

“This is the only campus in Israel that has kindergarten through university and it is the country’s only private institution,” said Archbishop Chacour. “We teach the spirituality of the Sermon on the Mount to all the students and they all live and work together.”

He said that children care little about labels and after a while, they don’t focus on each other’s religious or ethnic identity. “My only wish is that they sit together around desks and write the future of their children. It can’t be an isolated future for them. This is vital for human unity and dignity. Besides, they were all born in the image and likeness of God.”

The next MEEI project is expected to bring together Arab-Israelis (Muslim and Christian) with Jewish Israelis. Then, Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Jewish students will be joined by Arab students from the neighboring countries of Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt. As the final phase of the plan unfolds, international students from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe will be admitted.

It would seem an impossibility to build schools in a land of scarce resources, but the breadth of the mission and the dream of peaceful coexistence among Jews and Muslims drives Archbishop Chacour. However, he is quick to admit that he has not accomplished these projects alone. Rather, he has been able to enlist many, many people to help him. For example, one group actively responsible for providing subsidies for student scholarships and building projects is the Pilgrims of Ibillin based in Livermore, California. He also obtained the help of former Secretary of State James Baker.

“I learned that the shortest way to Jerusalem is through Washington, D.C.,” said the Archbishop. When he was having trouble getting a building permit for the high school, Archbishop Chacour decided to visit then-Secretary of State James Baker. It was just after the Gulf War in 1991. He simply went to his house and knocked on the door. The secretary’s wife, Suzan, answered.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Another man from Galilee,” he answered.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Sorry, we men from Galilee never make appointments, we only make appearances.”

Mrs. Baker hesitated letting Archbishop Chacour in but she found it equally difficult to turn him away. She brought him to the kitchen and offered him a drink of iced tea. He told her he needed help with the building permit so she also gave him her husband’s office phone number. She was about to excuse herself because she was holding a Bible Study in her living room when he asked her what her group was studying. It was the Sermon on the Mount. He then asked her what language they were using. Of course, it was English.

“I pity you but good luck,” said the Archbishop who knows 11 languages and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, English, French, German and Aramaic fluently. His remark puzzled Mrs. Baker so she asked if he could help the group understand this Bible passage better. For the next two hours Archbishop Chacour sat in Mrs. Baker’s living room with some “gentle, loving ladies” and explained that the first eight verses of the Sermon had a different meaning in the Aramaic language of Jesus from the “be happy attitudes” the women had been taught in English. It went something like: “Straighten up yourself, go ahead and do something. Get your hands dirty if you are hungry and thirsty for justice.”

A week later Mrs. Baker asked the Archbishop to return to her house so that they could pray together. Eventually the two struck up a friendship that also included her husband—and which has lasted over a decade. When the Archbishop wanted to build a college (he was concerned that the young Christians were leaving Galilee and creating a brain drain of skilled professionals, managers, and craftsmen), it was James Baker who helped the Archbishop connect with the University of Indianapolis to establish a UI branch campus in Israel. In July 2003, after two and a half years of exchanging 264 letters with the Israeli government, the Mar Elias Campus was accredited by the North Central Association and accepted by the Council of Higher Education in Israel. In one month 126 students—Arabs, Christians and Israelis—applied for the first semester that began on October 21, 2003. The university has three departments: Environmental Science and Chemistry, Computer Science, and Communication and the Archbishop is looking to add more.

The MEEI schools employ a 290-person faculty including 100 people with Ph.D.s and 92 with master’s degrees. Twenty-eight faculty members are Jewish. Archbishop’s own nephew, who recently earned a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Western Michigan University, also signed on to teach at the college after turning down a lucrative career with the U.S. Marine Corps. “I promised him that he would not make a lot of money with us but that he would receive much love. For four years now he has been there.”

Archbishop Chacour paused a moment at the podium and closed his eyes as if to contemplate. “If these schools did not exist, where would all the faculty be today? Certainly anywhere but Palestine. This gives me hope and courage and the drive to continue despite all the problems.”

Archbishop Chacour was moved to silence once more. He confessed that after he obtained accreditation for the college, he fell on his knees in his office and prayed: “Lord, now you can take your servant in peace.” Instead, he felt called to establish the Mar Elias Peace Center, which is slated to play a vital role in the schools’ local and international outreach programs and to serve as a peace research center. English has been adopted as its language of instruction.

Although anyone would agree that these accomplishments are astounding, Archbishop Chacour remains modest and faith-filled. “You are called to become God-like, not to be our size,” he said. “We must set God free from our concepts and poor understanding. God is Great!”

After speaking for nearly an hour, the Archbishop made a plea to his audience.

“I believe in you. You can make a difference. You love to make a difference. You are called to make a difference. On behalf of all Palestinian children, I beg you,” he repeated, “I beg you to be in touch with the Jews you know and to continue giving friendship and sympathy to them and to respect them as human beings. They need this more than anyone during these times of big decision-making. Ask them to be more reasonable in their perceptions of Palestinians and not to be automatic enemies of them. And, know, too, that if you are friends with Jews that that does not mean that you are automatically at enmity with Palestinians.

“If taking our side, however, means that you accept everything we do and you become an enemy of the Jews, then we do not need your friendship. For us to find one more enemy in this horrible situation that has to stop is not what we need. What we need is one more common friend. Can you do that? Do you have the courage? Decide for yourself—and get your hands dirty for peace and justice. You can do it!”

Archbishop Chacour received wild applause and a standing ovation but he reacted by just standing at the podium with his head bowed and his eyes closed. He was praying. When the applause ceased, he spoke again: “Don’t applaud for me but for a corner of your own conscience that is awakened.”

Thursday, July 12, 2007

St. Francis of Assisi—A Model of Peace for Our Own Times

St. Francis of Assisi continues to inspire others to the cause of peace and beauty in the world. He does this, perhaps, not by merely wishing it or hoping that political leaders will somehow devise a system that abolishes war and stifles discord at home. No, Francis teaches that each person must commit him/herself to peace in his/her own way with whatever gifts one has. Then, when enough individuals are working in this direction, the world can be a place of peace.

Twelfth century Assisi was much like our world today where we see great moral upheaval, social change, and war. “Mercantile mania” and “conspicuous consumption” gripped the townspeople of that time, the Roman Catholic Church was beset with scandal, and Christianity was at war with Islam in the Holy Land.

Francis, the son of a highly successful merchant, “left this world” and all the trappings of a privileged life not to avoid humanity but to embrace it. His spiritual development was a gradual process beginning with a memorable encounter with a leper during a business trip with his father and ending on his deathbed at age 44 when he abandoned himself to God.

A man of principle and action, Francis rejected his society not because he didn’t like nice things, good food and wine. He rejected Assisi society because he saw money as an impediment to his happiness. It was fitting, then, that Francis’ announcement of his new life would begin at the cathedral steps of his hometown with the dramatic and symbolic act of shedding the clothes of his upper class life. Bishop Guido then wrapped the naked man in an old hermit’s tunic, which would become the recognizable garb of all the Franciscan brothers.

The charismatic Francis instantly attracted other followers, although he resisted imposing his new way of life on others. Rather, he believed that each individual needed to discern his/her own witness to the Gospel. Eventually his small band would grow into thousands and include the following prescriptions for life: strict poverty; authority exercised as service; obedience for the good of the community; a fraternal, democratic spirit; and honest work. Also, unlike most preachers of his time who talked of judgment, penance, and damnation, Francis focused on the love of God and the joy of committing one’s life to Him.

St. Francis was a true visionary but what strikes anyone who studies him is his steadfastness of heart and integrity of purpose. Francis engages the world completely while he disregards what people say about him. He is his own man and he lets nothing and no one to discourage him from doing what he thinks he is called to do. For example, Francis joined the Crusades as one of those who eagerly followed the pope’s call to save the Holy Land from the Muslims. Francis did this with sincerity, simplicity, and na├»ve determination to establish peace in that land. However, his failure to convert the Muslims, which could have ended in his death, illustrates his willingness to risk all in order to follow his Lord’s call. It was through such pursuits that he grew spiritually and, in this case, eventually he befriended the Muslims and realized his misguided quest.

During the last several years of Francis’ life, his vision of the brotherhood could not compete with the vision of certain influential members of his community who wanted to be sanctioned by the official Church. Their plan, he thought, compromised the character and purpose of the brotherhood, which identified with and served the poor. He anguished over these conflicts, which resulted in his dread of evil and fear of death. To fight against these intense feelings, he undertook a regimen of penance, self-denial, and prayer, none of which helped. He also had furious outbursts and even fingered the malocchio (the evil eye) against his opponents. Then, he’d withdraw, weep for his impatience, ask forgiveness for his foul moods, and increasingly suffer from physical pain and encroaching blindness.

This was Francis’ “dark night of the soul.” However, from that darkness, Francis, like Jesus before him, abandoned himself to God. It was at this point that he became a saint: Francis decided to be forthright and true to his God rather than to salve his own ego.

Francis of Assisi remains a model for us as we search for a life of peace—especially as we contemplate and endure the struggles and conflicts of our own difficult times. Such an approach to life is not about fantasy or denial. As Francis might say, peace is our purpose in life and it is indeed do-able. God help us if we don’t give it a try!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Walking the Talk for Peacemaking

Peacemaking is a passive activity, right? Or at least it’s an absence of war. Yes?

After spending 18 months of observing and talking with local peace activists since the start of this war with Iraq, I learned that peacemaking is really an action-oriented endeavor that takes much time, integrity, ingenuity, commitment, determination, discipline, restraint and sacrifice.

First of all, to adopt a vision of peace and enact it in one’s daily life requires an intense and unwavering conviction that you can make a difference in the world, or as Gandhi reportedly put it: “Be the change you wish to see.” Such peaceful, nonviolent aspirations are radical departures from war and violence, which assume that forcefulness can effectively control people or situations—and should.

What I also discovered about peace activists is that while people may want to be peacemakers, they may find it difficult to pursue this noble cause in isolation. They must be part of a group that consistently challenges its members to be true to the virtues of peacemaking. For example, while demonstrating for peace on the street, it is easy to get caught up in a moment of passion when war supporters in passing cars shout nasty remarks or make obscene gestures. Activists need each other to remind them of their purpose.

“If someone makes a bad remark, avoid arguing or fighting back,” advised Tom Small, a Quaker and one of the founders of the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War (KNOW) who organized weekly peace demonstrations in my town nearly five years ago. “As people for peace, we have to be peaceful. Just smile or wave or give a peace sign, but don’t respond with hostilities.”

The demonstrations became a place of refuge, mutual support and friendship. This was especially important when the peace activists were called “traitors” by those who backed Bush. They also became a place for people to express their deep feelings of sorrow and distress over this war. For example, on the evening of Thursday, March 20, twenty-four hours after the war had started, the peace activists held a silent candlelight vigil. Seven hundred people lined both sides of the downtown’s main street on that cold, misty night! During the early months of the war 400 to 500 people came out to stand for peace at the weekly vigils. Today 30 to 40 people still come each Sunday at noon to stand for peace for an hour. These kinds of actions by peace activists are taking place all over the country!

Of course, the peace demonstrations became the place for citizens to declare their opposition to the war and their anger at the Bush administration in a public way. Unfortunately, we Americans don’t value the public realm as much as we used to do. “The street” has negative connotations. There is a pervading fear that violence will erupt when groups with political agendas gather to demonstrate. However, by reducing the public realm people not only sequester themselves from those unlike themselves (like immigrants, poor people, African Americans, workers, women, etc.), they cut themselves off from some important realities about the injustices of their society, like opposition to this illegal, immoral, unnecessary war.

Actually, the whole idea of demonstrating in public is essential to peacemaking because it provokes a response. Onlookers see overt activity. They see protest. They see that something is amiss. They wonder what is happening. To find out, citizens have typically depended on the media for information, however, as we all know, the mainstream media shamefully dropped the ball before the war began and yielded to the White House. The New York Times admitted as much. Books like Eric Boehlert’s Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush illustrate how the media were more concerned about pleasing their advertisers and protecting their access to the administration than they were about reporting the dissent over the war—or the truth about why Bush wanted to wage it. Books like Joshua Rushing’s Mission Al Jezeera show how the administration’s tight control over the media prevented essential information from coming out, not only to the detriment of American citizens’ view of the war but in our relationships with the Arab peoples and their perceptions of our country.

Demonstrating in public is indispensable to democracy. It is a “right of the people peaceably to assemble”, according to the First Amendment. Such demonstrations point to some injustice being committed and it is the duty of citizens to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Public demonstrations are about putting yourself on the line as to where you stand on an important issue. It is one of the most patriotic things a citizen can do! However, when government curtails peaceful protest, as the Bush administration has consistently done, or if the media fail to report what is happening in the country, then citizens cannot obtain a clear or accurate view in which to judge the situation rationally.

Peacemaking is a coalition-building process that attempts to make a point using the apparatus of the system. Of late, peace groups all over the country have been lobbying their representatives in Congress to vote against continued funding for the Iraq war. The 2006 elections brought out people to support candidates who vowed to bring an end to the war. While we have yet to see the results of these efforts, polls show that 70 percent of Americans do want the war to end and Congress is now under tremendous pressure to deliver.

Finally, peace activists represent the hope and resolve that a world without war IS possible because they understand that it is no longer possible to settle our international differences by fighting costly and genocidal wars. For all of these reasons, peace activists deserve to be recognized as heroes of a different stripe.

This article appeared in, July 4, 2007